Most likely you have been using and storing photos in the JPEG file format, which is the default storage type in most cameras. It is also the most popular photo saving format due to the smaller size of the file, and a good amount of detail. This works great most of the time – Great Pictures, straight out of the camera!
However, most people do not realize that a JPEG image is a compressed image file. After the camera takes the photo, to save space, it compresses it using its own logic. So for each two pixels which are similar in color, it discards one, and keeps only 1 color code. This removes the detail from the image, and reduces the photo size.
For everyday photos, this works out fine, if all you want is to upload the photo on to Facebook, or if you only do some basic editing in Adobe Photoshop, Elements, or a Google Picasa kind of programs to fix the brightness or contrast.
However, if you want to have greater control over your image, or you would like to print in a size larger than a A4/Letter sized paper, and want to do a lot more corrections to the photos that can improve the image quality dramatically, you should not save it in the JPEG format. Instead, use your camera’s RAW image format.
What is a RAW image?
A RAW image is a completely uncompressed image, as taken by the camera’s lens. It is typically huge in size, maybe even 4 to 10 times the size of a usual JPEG image file. Even if you use a 20 or 30 Mega Pixel camera, but store the images in JPEG format, the file size will be around 3-6MB. Only if you shoot in RAW will you get all the 20 or 30 mega pixels recorded in the image.
With a RAW file, you have all the pixels, as recorded by the camera. This gives you much greater control over color depth, exposure, and a plethora of settings. And now you can tweak a lot of things in the image, like the White Balance, Brightness, Color model, Exposure etc. with greater control, and the choice of additional options available is much larger.
Benefits of Shooting in RAW
1. Highest Quality
With the original pixels recorded by the camera lens, you are not at the mercy of the camera’s logic to compress the image, discarding the pixels it thinks are useless.
This gives you a much larger spectrum of colors, pixels to tweak, and the highest image quality possible. This is even more essential if you plan to print your photos in anything larger than a A4 or Letter size. To print a A2, A1 or larger poster size, an uncompressed file will give you the necessary pixels to enlarge the photo to the size required. If your image does not have enough detail for that size, it will look pixelated and grainy.
2. Correct White Balance, Brightness, Contrast easily
Most camera’s have the AUTO white balance setting preset. Even with the advancements in technology, unfortunately, the camera is unable to guess the right white balance, even with sophisticated algorithms and years of research by big camera companies like Canon, Nikon, Olympus etc.
So it is quite often that you will get a yellow or orange color cast on pictures taken an home at the family gathering, making the faces of each person look too pale, yellowish or unnatural.
Similarly, pictures taken in shade, or on cloudy days turn out to be too dull, dark, or with a bluish tinge. This is because in JPEG images, the camera chooses a white balance, which can not be changed later on.
With a RAW Image, you can tweak the White Balance, correcting the temperature of the light. You can experiment with different settings, and pick the ones that makes the image stand out, in a post processing software like Adobe Lightroom.
3. Non-Destructive Editing
Each time you tweak a JPEG image, and then save it, it looses some pixels because of the compression algorithm. So if you save a JPEG image a few times, it may loose quite a lot of the detail and quality, making the image unsuitable for large sized prints.
With RAW images, you never modify the image pixels. All of your changes to white balance, exposure, brightness are stored in a separate meta data file, thus the changes are non-destructive. You can make as many changes, and save the image any number of times. You can always get the original image back, and nothing is ever lost.
Disadvantages of Shooting in RAW
1. Large File Size
The recorded image is quite large in size. Thus, only a few will be saved on the Memory card before it gets full. Of course, with reducing prices, and the increasing sizes of the memory cards, this is not much of a problem. But you still do not want to be changing cards, or mistakenly erase a card before downloading the images.
2. Reduced Frames Per Second
This is a side effect of the large file size discussed above. Because of the large file size of a RAW file, it takes time to write it to the memory card. Thus, you can’t keep on taking shot after shot in rapid succession. So the number of frames you can take per second may be seriously impacted.
Some cameras from Canon and Nikon boast of 5 or 7 or even 9 frames per second. But when in RAW mode, this gets reduced to only 2 to 4 frames per second, before the camera’s memory buffer gets full. Then the camera may get into a lock position, not permitting you to take additional pictures, until the current photos are written to the memory card first.
3. Specific Software for Post Processing Your RAW Images
You need dedicated software to open and process a RAW image, whereas the JPEG images can be opened by almost any photo editing program like Adobe Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro, Picasa, Photo Editor, GIMP etc.
For RAW images, use the software that came with your camera, like Adobe RAW, or use Adobe Lightroom.
4. Soft Images To Start With
Surprisingly, the first time you open an image in a RAW file editor like Adobe Lightroom, it may look quite soft. This is common, because the JPEG compression often makes the image look brighter and sharper.
However, once you begin to tweak the image in Lightroom, it can be sharpened to your liking, and gives you much more control over the sharpening. Further, you can always take the image easily from Lightroom to Adobe Photoshop and sharpen it there.
This can be both good and bad…. Good that you have the control to tweak the images, but, bad because until you do the post processing in the RAW editing software, you can’t use the photos.
When Should You Shoot in RAW and When in JPEG
|When to Use RAW Images||When Should You Use JPEG Images|
|Full control over the photo and how it looks finally||Quick Everyday Photos|
|Ability to choose or tweak White Balance so that you get that Perfect White Balance effect||Not much tweaking needed|
|Shooting for Clients or your own Portfolio, thus a higher quality is needed||Small size, saving space on the memory card, and on your computer.|
|Not so perfect light is available to shoot. Lighting can then be tweaked in software||Good Daylight is available for the photo taking|
For most DSLR cameras out there, if you go in to tweak the settings, file formats, you might be able to choose to save in both JPEG and RAW file formats. So if you want to quickly look at the photo, look at the JPEG, and if you think you would like to tweak it further, you still have the RAW file format. Best of both worlds!
I would seriously recommend to you to shoot only in RAW, or if your camera allows to save in both JPEG and RAW, choose this setting. This way you retain the full control over your images, and even much later on, you can color correct an image, or make a poster out of it at any time.
You’ll be glad you switched to RAW in the years to come. 🙂